Tucked down a small arcade off Raymond St, Sale, is a thriving salon owned by well-known local resident Stephen Walsh.
When customers walk through the front doors, they are initially greeted by a small but bustling salon.
As they venture further in, it opens into an enormous space following a recent expansion.
Stephen is the mastermind behind the thriving business.
While many businesses are barely scraping by as Victoria yo-yos in and out of lockdowns, Hair is Kanyemba wants to grow its staff from 18 up to 25.
Stephen is full of positive energy, endeavouring to create a place that is fun for patrons and staff.
You can’t help but feel welcomed, and his warm presence radiates as he moves around the salon greeting patrons and joking with his staff.
The business was launched 15 years ago by Stephen’s late wife, Kelly, who tragically lost her life in a car accident 18 months after opening the business.
Stephen took it on, allowing the business to manage itself for a decade before coming back and taking a much more hands-on approach.
“I had an aim to develop this shop into a new- age business in the concept and the way it runs,” he said.
“We have an ambition to have a salon that you almost don’t need to phone, which is unusual in this time where technology is so important.
“We want a place where if you think you want a haircut you can have a 15 minute wait time and you’re in, whether that be ladies cut and colours, men’s, kids, anybody — and that’s the general idea,” Stephen said.
As with a vast majority of industries, if you asked any hairdresser pre-COVID what would force them to close, a hundred other things would come to mind before a global pandemic.
For places like Hair is Kanyemba, it’s a challenge never before faced and a new hurdle to overcome.
“It hasn’t really damaged our industry [COVID],” Stephen said.
“It has given us more strength because we have had to think outside of the square a little bit or become aware of the new world.
“You have to think differently to what you did 18 months ago; it’s not going to be the same playing field.”
Part of the winning formula is Stephen’s charismatic personality and extensive experience in the industry.
He moves around the salon teasing a laugh out of every person he speaks with — clients and staff.
Hair is Kanyemba is a fun environment, designed to be an enjoyable place to spend half an hour to an hour sitting down to get a cut, colour or updo.
“The whole idea of this shop is for it to be fun,” Stephen said.
“It’s what people actually like about it, it’s the atmosphere — we’re not staunched,” he said.
While this salon is shifting the idea of what a hairdresser’s could be like, Stephen wants to put back into the industry that has allowed him to do what he loves.
After the helping hand the business received from government incentives such as JobKeeper and cash bonuses, Stephen wanted to ensure he put that money into growing the business, which would allow him to not only retain his staff, but hire senior hairdressers and train new ones from the beginning.
“All of our COVID money we poured back into helping the industry,” he said.
“We extended the salon to 31 stations, which is technically as good as the largest in the state — including the city.
“We have the intentions, and we will employ another four apprentices this year, so we will have nine apprentices on the books and we will probably put on another half a dozen a year indefinitely,” Stephen said.
The challenge is that Stephen can’t find enough senior staff to fill positions in his store.
“We require senior staff and that’s the problem — there is a huge shortage in senior hairdressers,” he said.
“There are a heap of hairdressing salons, shopfronts or backyarders which consist of maybe one or two — sometimes three — but they don’t train staff.
“You could have 50 seniors, but if you haven’t got any apprentices then you’re not giving back,” he said.
One challenge is fitting in the flood of clients after prolonged periods of lockdowns.
Some of the first appointments people strive to make after a lockdown lift is with their hairdresser, and the walk-in nature of Hair is Kanyemba ensures the staff have astronomical numbers coming through the door.
“If we do 500 haircuts a week and we close for three weeks, then we come back, that’s 1500 we have to catch up on, plus the 500 we would ordinarily have that week — it’s a minefield,” Stephen said.
“We came back and were absolutely slammed with people.
“You could have 40 hairdressers and they wouldn’t keep up.
“I’ve got to commend people, the general public, they’re good, they have a lot of understanding and they have a lot of respect,” he said.
Stephen’s outlook on life is uplifting, and he always has a positive spin on everything — even when discussing the challenges of COVID.
“As an economy we aren’t gonna go broke because of COVID, but we do have to change our way of thinking,” he said.
“I actually find it exciting — it is going to force change.”